James Maddison looks frustrated – Tottenham need him at his free-wheeling best

On Tuesday night, for the second game running, Tottenham Hotspur took off James Maddison, their most creative player, while chasing a late winner.

It was the 68th minute against Luton Town on Saturday, the 70th against West Ham United. Maddison wasn’t playing brilliantly in either game, but given how dangerous he can be, you couldn’t help but wonder if he was managing a small injury. Spurs head coach Ange Postecoglou shot down that idea, saying after Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw away at West Ham: “He’s not carrying a knock. If he was carrying a knock he wouldn’t be playing. He’s fine, yeah.”

Physically fine, then, but perhaps not at his brilliant best?

The numbers would bear that out. They show Maddison suffering a drop-off from his scintillating form in the first few months of the season before that unfortunate ankle injury he picked up against Chelsea in early November. When he got injured, Maddison had produced three goals and five assists in his first 11 games. Since he returned from injury in late January, those figures are one and two from nine matches.

Looking at the table below, his numbers are down across from the board, apart from his final third touches. Tellingly, however, these are down as a proportion of his total touches, indicating that he’s taking a greater share of his overall touches in less dangerous areas.

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Against West Ham, the theme of Maddison’s evening was frustration. On a couple of occasions, he threw his arms up when team-mates failed to pick him out in good positions, on another he refused to accept Lucas Paqueta’s apology after a late tackle (not the only one the Brazilian put in on him during the game).

Taking hits has been a recurring theme for Maddison this season — he’s the fourth-most fouled player in the Premier League, despite missing a third of the campaign with injury. He’s targeted by pretty much every team Spurs play — Joao Palhinha put in some similarly meaty tackles on him for Fulham last month to the ones dished out by Paqueta — and though this is not new to him, it’s still another challenge he has to navigate.

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James Maddison clashes with Lucas Paqueta (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

In theory, the attention opponents put on Maddison should open spaces up for his team-mates, and on Tuesday night Postecoglou expressed his satisfaction at his No 10’s performance.

“I thought Madders was really good, especially when he got in their final third,” Postecoglou said. “I thought he played some really clever passes that we just didn’t capitalise on.”

Maybe this is part of it too, with Maddison’s team-mates not always making the most of the chances he creates for them. That said, his expected assists (xA) figure is substantially down from his pre-injury period (0.16 per 90 minutes since, compared to 0.28 prior). Likewise, his chances created are down from 3.2 per 90 minutes to 1.8 in the post-injury period.

Part of Spurs’ issue is an over-reliance on Maddison, which is understandable at this stage of the Postecoglou project and given the challenge of trying to replace Harry Kane’s monumental creative output in one summer. But either way, it feels sometimes that if opposition teams can shackle Maddison, then Spurs become too reliant on trying to play through the flanks. That was the case against West Ham on Tuesday, when an initially profitable route started to become a bit too predictable.

And although Spurs have other creative players in the squad, none are at Maddison’s level. Of the two players who came on for him in Tottenham’s last two games for example, Giovani Lo Celso has always lacked consistency and availability since joining five years ago, while Dejan Kulusevski had barely played as a central attacking player for Spurs until this season and is struggling for form right now. His 20-minute appearance at the London Stadium betrayed the current lack of confidence and conviction in his game.

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James Maddison was taken off again at West Ham (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Back to Maddison, and it’s perfectly understandable that he would need some time to adapt after returning from injury. It’s also not as though he hasn’t produced any good performances in the last couple of months. Only a few weeks ago, away at Aston Villa, he was scoring and full of his trademark swagger as Spurs battered their rival for fourth place 4-0. The week before he set up Cristian Romero’s crucial second goal against Crystal Palace.

The issue for now is that there isn’t much time left for Maddison to consistently rediscover his best form, with only eight games of the season remaining, and three of those against the best three teams in the country. But Maddison at his best is absolutely what Spurs need — for the frustrated figure of the last few games to give way to the freewheeling version that was brimming with confidence and fun in the early part of the season.

(Top photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

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